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Page added on January 29, 2014

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The problem with mining

The problem with mining thumbnail

Table courtesy of Steven Rocco.

The image above is one of the best illustrations of the real problem we have with mining. As it was said already with the 1972 study “The Limits to Growth” we are NOT running out of anything. What we are running out of is the resources needed for mining, facing increasing fuel costs and diminishing ore grades.

So, in the table created by Steven Rocco, you see how the cost of diesel fuel used in gold extraction has nearly doubled during the past four years, arriving, at present, to represent about 10% of the market price of gold. We can still afford to mine gold, but the writing is on the wall and not just for gold. The cost of extraction is increasing for all mineral commodities, including fossil fuels, as an unavoidable result of progressive depletion. Obviously, that’s not good news for the world’s economy, and the increasing expenses needed for extraction are one of the reasons of the present economic troubles.

The question of depletion is the main theme of my new book “Extracted,” published by Chelsea Green and expected to be available in May of this year.

Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi 

18 Comments on "The problem with mining"

  1. J-Gav on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 12:33 pm 

    I have to concur with Bardi that rising costs and declining ore grades spell trouble for continuing BAU in our hyper-complex societies.

  2. robertinget on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 12:47 pm 

    Gold goes to $4,000 an ounce, no one is harmed.
    Potash, OTOH…

  3. rollin on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 2:09 pm 

    Meanwhile, Ugo is trying to mine my wallet. He may succeed. Should be a good read.

    Mining operations use a lot of electricity too. I wonder what the energy demand is there. Electric motors are far more efficient than ICE but the electric generation is not fully efficient nor is the transmission, so multiply the electric energy used by about 3.

    Here is a study of energy use in copper mining done by Princeton University. Since copper has become quite low grade it should transfer as a model for modern mining systems.

    Although electric energy use is lower than diesel, once the loss of generation and transmission is taken into account it will be higher.

  4. deedl on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 2:40 pm 

    @rollin: you’re right with the electricity.

    Fortunately mining is a dispatchable consumer of electricity. In an economy driven by a large share of renewables with a weather/daytime dependend production of wind/solar, mining will be the operation that uses the “leftover” electricity on windy/sunny days. This is either done by planning or by the markets “magic hand” based on the spot market price of electricity.

    That does not mean that mining will be done at current levels, but it also does not mean that mining is a dead horse. Basically all energy intensive industries, meaning the entire chain from mining over processing ores and melting and forging metals and so on will be used as a dispatchable consumer to adapt consumption to the production.

    This is already done today. In Hamburg is a steel plant that regularly is ramped down in late afternoon/early evening when solar produciton sets while people coming home switch on their heaters, TVs and stoves to eat and relax in a warm room. The steel plant makes money doing this, since it sells their prepayed electricity slice at elevated spot prices.

    The good thing about metals is their very high rate of recyclibility. Its a resource that is not used up, so once having a stock of metals it can be circulated in steady state industrial economy and provide for the needs.

    However anything that has to do with growth of course is over.

    I wonder when we will start digging up all the billion tons of waste in the landfills around the world to mine those mienrals and bring them back to the material cycles.

  5. sunweb on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 5:07 pm 

    The major mining vehicles are diesel electric like most cargo trains (including coal trains). These vehicles include the dump trucks and the huge cranes that dwarf the dump trucks.

    Here is the info on one of the trucks. MT5500 statistics include a gross vehicle weight of over 1,100,000 pounds. The truck is 46 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 24 feet tall. The MT5500 house’s a 16 cylinder, 3000 horsepower engine requiring 264 quarts of oil and consumes fuel at the rate of 137 gallons per engine/hour. 2½ Gallons a minute or over 1 Gallon every 30 seconds !
    This is just one truck.

    And my information says that recycled copper does not work well for motors because of impurities.

    As for mining the landfills, there are already many poor people worldwide doing that without machines. If you want the quantity of materials needed for “business as usual” you better have a lot of poor people or it is back to the machines. Will you be out there doing the mining or driving the machines?

    We have been down this path before, and I don’t expect you to look at the whole system. I expect the mantra – Energy is energy. So what. The energy I put into sawing a log by hand may be the same as the energy I use with my chainsaw if I don’t count the chainsaw.
    But we will continue to disagree. I am just having fun.

  6. Northwest Resident on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 5:31 pm 

    The problem with mining is the same problem we have with fossil fuels — there are limited amounts, and those limited/finite amounts eventually run out, or what’s left of the finite resource becomes exponentially more difficult and/or expensive to extract.

    I read an article that described in detail how excessively toxic the mining of “rare metals” is in China, and how the supplies of those rare metals still able to be mined in China was quickly running out — peak rare metals.

    I agree with deedl — in the not-too-distant future, in world that looks very much like “Fallout New Vegas” video game, digging up and recycling metals will become a booming business and a foundation block for a new economy.

  7. GregT on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 9:36 pm 


    By digging up and recycling, do you not mean scavenging? Perhaps an economy for the elite. The 99.9999% of the rest of the people will be lucky to be fed enough for their labour. As a matter of fact, metals scavenging is already occurring in cities throughout North America, and much of those metals were still in use. I know, I’ve had 2 exhaust systems stolen off of vehicles in the past year alone, and copper wiring is routinely stolen while people sleep at night.

    The new economy has already begun. 🙂

  8. DC on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 9:37 pm 

    At some point, probably in the not-to-distant future, the energy\labor\time costs of digging ever deeper holes will exceed the value of what the economy can actually afford to pay for the metal, no matter how badly they want it. When that happens, the market for ‘discretionary metal extraction’ will end. There will probably still be ‘new’ metal being mined, but it will be basically rationed and set aside for the most critical of needs. No one will be mining metal to make jumbo airbuses, soda cans, or gas-burning GM trash bins.

    Of course, there will always be Old Lady Gibson in Novac to buy old scrap metal from….

  9. Northwest Resident on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 10:07 pm 

    GregT — Scavenging — that is exactly what I am talking about.

    Not just metal, but everything.

    Perhaps in the not too distant future, we’ll be seeing a lot of those “bums” pushing around shopping carts full of “junk” — except, it won’t be “junk” anymore, it will be high-value material. And the bums won’t be “bums”, they will be “travelling salesmen.”

    But that won’t be me doing the scavenging, unless it is from abandoned houses in the area where I live. I’ll be a self-sufficient mini-farmer with a bunch of egg laying and BBQ-ready chickens, maybe some rabbits too.

    It takes a lot of fuel for the elite to enforce their “elitism” over a wide geographical area. When all they’re going to get is scraps of metal or other materials off of bums, or maybe some vegetable/fruit produce off some poor farmer (or maybe some double odd buckshot too), I’m thinking the elite will probably just decide to lay low in their well-prepared fortresses and ten years worth of freeze-dried food, rather than draw attention to themselves. Who knows, one of those “bums” might end up being a high plains drifter type with a “little surprise” hiding in the shopping cart.

  10. action on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 10:52 pm 

    High Plains Drifter – good movie!

  11. GregT on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 11:17 pm 


    Sounds like your plans are much the same as mine. Gardens, chickens, ducks, and maybe even rabbits. There’s plenty of deer around too. More of a problem keeping them out of the yard, than it is hunting for them.

  12. Northwest Resident on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 12:47 am 

    GregT — The way I see it, becoming a self-sufficient mini-farmer and “food producer” is the only thing that makes sense in today’s world. It is the one thing I can do that “takes personal responsibility” for my future, and to some extent, the future of humanity. Whether this year, or next year, or sometime even much further in the future, we know that this global economy is going to crash and along with it the relatively easy life we’ve all lived with the inputs of fossil fuel energy. Being ready NOW, or as soon as possible, seems like the smart thing to do. If I’m ready to take care of myself and my wife and son, and maybe a few others, then I’ll be doing my part, I’ll be “leading the way”. To sit and do nothing just isn’t my style.

    I don’t have the “problem” of deer coming into my yard, but I’ve got a few big bags of salt in storage. Assuming a lot of things go the way I’m thinking they will, I’ll be able at some point to put a pile of salt in a strategic location and wait for the deer to come. Ducks? I may have to ride my bike down to the river for that. What?! Do you have your own pond or something???

  13. Makati1 on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 1:57 am 

    NR, you have the right idea, but I doubt that the wildlife you and GregT hope for will last beyond the first winter. You are not the only one who will be hunting, and they will go out and get them, not wait fir them to come to you.

    I live in Manila, a city of 15 million plus and I can tell you that there are zero pigeons here. Why? They are good to eat and too many people here are short on pesos to buy food in the stores even now. At the farm, the neighbors eat snakes, monitor lizards, etc.. (Monitors grow to the size of about 20-30 pounds in the Philippines.)

    How long do you think the edible wildlife will last in the US? You may be down to rats and insects if it gets really bad. I hope not, but maybe rat is ok if you have a few spices from the garden…lol.

  14. Northwest Resident on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 2:28 am 

    Hi Makati1. Yeah, they eat snakes and all kinds of interesting things in the Philippines, I know that. But regarding deer (and elk) here in the Pacific Northwest. During hunting season, thousands of hunters get licenses to hunt, but very few of them get a kill. Reason: The deer and elk are very smart. We like to joke that they have foxholes already dug and waiting, and as soon as they hear the first shot fired, they head deep into the mountains, away from the roads, and get into their foxholes and wait it out. In a true collapse situation, there won’t be gas for the 4-wheelers that all the hunters use to get way up into the mountains, and it is too far to walk. I suspect they’ll get a few more than usual, but the rest of the wildlife will head deep into the forest and won’t come out until its “safe.” Anyway, my “survival plan” doesn’t include deer or elk — those will be just luxuries if/when I can get one. What about in the Philippines?? If a real crash comes, won’t you get swarmed by villagers looking for food — tens of thousands of them?

  15. GregT on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 4:09 am 


    Are you in WA?

    We are so overrun with deer here that municipalities are culling them. They have actually been attacking people, and there are so many, that driving on the highway at night can be dangerous. There are not many hunters, and really not that many people. We are also within walking distance of the ocean, and even though numbers are down hugely, there are still millions of salmon returning every year. There are muscles, clams, oysters, squid, crabs, and prawns. We also have elk, moose, bear, grouse, pheasant, and an epidemic of Canada geese. There is plenty of food here to sustain the local population for a very long time, or at least as long as the biosphere remains healthy. I guess we are fortunate in that respect, we are surrounded by wilderness, with a relatively small amount of people.

    We do have a rather large pond that is home to about 30 koi. It does rely on a large 220V pump though, so probably not sustainable in the long run. The ducks tend to hang out in the spring during their migration. We are presently looking at a small farm close by, with established fruit and nut trees, on a few acres of land. Lots to think about, and lots to learn. I can only hope that what’s coming happens later than sooner, I’m not sure that we’ll ever be fully prepared. Time will tell.

  16. Northwest Resident on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 5:05 am 

    GregT — I’m in Oregon, southwest of Portland about 30 – 40 miles or so. Wow, it sounds like you have a great “bugout” location. You are very fortunate. We definitely do not have a problem with too many deer, though occasionally we see them on the side of the road or walking through the forest — and for sure not to the point that the city has to cull them. That is amazing… I’m in a small town, in a quiet neighborhood, with 40-year old thick arborvitae concealing my large backyard, and that’s where I’m doing my maximum production mini-farm. I love this project. It is hard work and takes time, but I like the exercise. Hey, I hope your biosphere does remain healthy — your neck of the woods sounds like an awesome place to be!

  17. rollin on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 5:18 am 

    The real question with all the depleting resources is who will come up on the short end of the stick? Will the world back off and transistion or will it merely polarize more to the “haves” and the “have nots”.

  18. Arthur on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 10:16 am 

    Mining is so 19th century. Since it is almost impossible to destroy an iron atom, at some point mining will become superfluous, since everything will be above the ground. Mining will be replaced by recycling.

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